There is a sense of urgency in the Missouri wrestling room.
In his sixth year, Brian Smith is hoping to coach the Tigers to their first national championship. Six upperclassmen are ranked in the top 15 in their weight class.
Four of them are seniors beginning their final chance.
“Jeremy (Spates), J.P. (Reese) and Kenny (Burleson) were all in my recruiting class, and this is it for them,” Smith said. “They really aren’t training all that different, but they are so focused on doing every little thing right. Whether it’s taking their vitamins or lifting correctly, they are training like there is no tomorrow.”
The Tigers, which InterMat ranks ninth, will test themselves against No. 1 Oklahoma State at 7 tonight at Hazelwood Central in St. Louis. The Cowboys, 2-0 and defending national champions, have 31 national wrestling titles.
Smith said the match will be similar to the NCAA Tournament finals this coming March in St. Louis.
Missouri hosted the NCAA Tournament in St. Louis in 2000. The tournament drew a record crowd of 96,994 to the Savvis Center.
“It’s going to be an electric atmosphere with about 2,000 to 3,000 people watching with all the media,” Smith said. “It’ll be similar to March because we’ll be wrestling the elite individuals in the country. On Friday, we’ll be wrestling the elite team.”
Smith said that the wrestlers set the goal of winning the national title, not the coaches. The goal is realistic, he said.
“I tell teams I coach them to what they want to do,” Smith said. “Is it up there in the clouds? I don’t think so. When you look at the rankings and what we are up against, we have the talent.”
Spates, ranked eighth at 149 pounds, lost two matches at the national tournament last season.
“My goal in wrestling has always been to be a national champion,” Spates said. “Now I have four months left in my career, and now is the time.”
Spates will wrestle No. 4 Zach Esposito, a sophomore, tonight. He said he hopes to beat him with experience.
Reese, 11th at 141, went 1-2 at last season’s NCAA Tournament. He said the wrestling room has transformed since his freshman year. Better recruits are adding competition, and the Tigers are challenging one another more at practice.
“I have never seen a room so competitive before in my life,” Reese said.
The Tigers’ 2004 recruiting class, which InterMat ranked sixth in the nation, included two ranked veterans: Paul Collum (133), a junior transfer from Iowa Central Community College, and senior Mike Whitehead (heavyweight), a transfer from Southern Oregon.
Collum is ranked ninth and Whitehead is ranked 13th.
Smith said that he had a meeting with Collum to discuss this season’s goals.
Collum wants a national title.
“He said to me, ‘This is it coach, I’m down to my last two years,’” Smith said. “He trains that way, with a sense of urgency, like there is no tomorrow.”
The most competitive match tonight is expected when Collum faces Johnny Thompson, a defending national champion. Collum defeated Thompson 15-13 at the Omaha Open Tournament last season.
“I plan on beating him,” Collum said. “He is the two-time national champ, so it’ll tell me where I’m at. I’m ready to go. I’m ready to wrestle. There is only a certain level of competition at college, so when I beat the national champion, that’s where I want to be.”